Lawmakers toughen gang strike force oversight

Michael Campion
In August 2009, Public Safety Commissioner Michael Campion, foreground, shut down the Metro Gang Strike Force. At right is Andy Luger, who co-chaired a review panel that concluded the strike force engaged in unethical and "egregious" searches and seizures.
MPR Photo / Laura Yuen

A year after the demise of the Metro Gang Strike Force, lawmakers have taken steps to curb some of the powers police were accused of abusing. Over the weekend, the Legislature passed new restrictions on seizures from suspected criminals and required new oversight of secret police files, although critics say that isn't enough.

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety shut down the Metro Gang Strike Force last summer, following a long list of scandals.

Authorities accused a handful of officers of seizing big screen TVs and other property from suspected criminals for their own use. A legislative audit also found missing cash and cars, and a state investigation found suspected corruption and dubious police work in the unit's files.

The Legislature created the strike force in 2005, so lawmakers vowed to clean up the mess this session.

"We have to ensure what happened at the Metro Gang Strike Force never happens again," said Rep. Michael Paymar, DFL-St. Paul, who chairs the house public safety finance committee.

He and other negotiators focused on two aspects of the scandal.

First was the state forfeiture law, which allowed the strike force to effectively become self-funding, running on the proceeds of cash and property it took from suspected criminals. The unit had nearly $500,000 tucked away in a safe when it was shut down.

Lawmakers tried to curb that temptation this year. Legislation passed over the weekend encourages more oversight by prosecutors, as well as more stringent notification for people whose property or evidence is seized. Police will now have to provide a written receipt for what they take, so ownership is clear.

The changes passed also specifically ban police from selling seized property to other officers or their families -- another problem that happened at the Metro Gang Strike Force.

Rep. Joe Mullery, DFL-Minneapolis, says Minnesota already has some of the most rigorous requirements in the nation for seizures by police.

"But we thought we could make some other parts of it easier for people to get their property back," said Mullery. "Almost everything in our bill here is to help people, if they're innocent, get their property back."

But some legislators say the reforms don't go far enough. They wanted to see the proceeds from criminal forfeitures go to the state, so local police wouldn't be tempted by quick money from seizures. They also pushed for a requirement that seizures be linked to court convictions. Seizures don't require a conviction now.

Rep. Tina Leibling, DFL-Rochester, says despite better oversight by county attorneys around the state, other conflicts of interest remain.

"Prosecutors get a cut of what is forfeited. They get 20 percent of the proceeds," she said. "Not a fee for their work or anything like that, but an actual cut of the proceeds. And I think that's a very troubling thing."

But the House rejected Liebling's efforts to make the forfeiture laws tougher.

The second aspect of the Gang Strike Force scandal that lawmakers addressed involves secret police files on suspected gang members.

The metro gang unit was a major contributor to those files. Hearings on the scandal raised questions about the accuracy and fairness of the information in those databases -- and how it impacts the people listed in the files.

Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, pushed for stricter limits on the gathering and sharing of such information. She says she's troubled by the high number of minorities among the people listed in the databases.

Moua says she's disappointed lawmakers agreed only to study the matter further.

"I think our inability to address the disproportionate representation, or impose oversight to start to address that -- I think we failed in our responsibility to help restore and repair the relationship between communities of color and law enforcement," said Moua.

A St. Thomas law professor who helped write a community-based report on the Gang Strike Force scandal told lawmakers over the weekend that she hopes they'll try again to better balance public safety and privacy.

Nekima Levy-Pounds runs the Community Justice Project at St. Thomas.

"This was never about restricting law enforcement's ability to collect data. But this is about ensuring that there's accountability, that there's oversight, and that there's some protocols in place and its not a free for all," said Levy-Pounds.

The Gang Strike Force scandal is also the subject of an FBI investigation. It's unclear if or when any criminal charges will be filed in the case.